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Social Distortion: Sex, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll

When Social Distortion released White Light, White Heat, White Trash in 1996, I had a hard time imagining a follow-up album that wouldn't be disappointing. I mean, that was one hell of a record. In retrospect, it seems Social Distortion had just as much trouble figuring out what sort of album could live up to the ridiculously high standard they set with WLWHWT, waiting a full eight years before releasing Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll in 2004. Ultimately, Mike Ness and crew produced an entirely worthy successor to their mid-nineties masterpiece.

Stylistically, Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll resembles White Light, White Heat, White Trash in its polished, extremely radio-friendly sound. While the rockabilly and country/western elements so prevalent on their albums after Mommy's Little Monster (1983) remain central to the band's style, Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll, like its predecessor, is a straight-forward punk rock record with cowpunk undertones (rather than a cowpunk record with punk undertones), and a masterful one at that.

As usual, Mike Ness's plaintive vocals deliver the band's trademark themes of regret and longing in the sad, almost wistful sing-along style he's perfected over the past thirty years.

Highlights: The difficulty in selecting stand-out tracks on an album like Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll is in the elimination. For a record as consistently solid as this, it almost sounds like a greatest hits album...

Track 1.
"Reach for the Sky." The album's lone charting single remains one of the band's most representative songs. Lyrically, the song mourns a life in shambles while expressing a melancholy fear that the future "may never come," leaving the singer to embrace his present circumstances, diminished as they may be. Musically, the track balances the band's roots rock sensibility with their punk influences as perfectly as any song in Social D.'s discography.

Track 2. "Highway 101." In this bluesy tune, a wounded, hardened heart accepts love again-- along the California coast.

Track 4. "Footprints on the Ceiling." One of the album's more overtly country-influenced songs, "Footprints" is beautiful dirge for lost love.

Track 7. "Winners and Losers." Ah, sweet, sweet regret.

Track 10. "Angel's Wings." Co-written with Jonny Wickersham, "Angel's Wings" includes some of Ness's most upbeat lyrics. A sublime love song without sappy sentimentality, this track celebrates the rare variety of love that emerges midlife, after wrinkles appear and mistakes have been made. A tough guy ballad no tough guy would be ashamed to play.

This is the sort of record to play at, like, three in the morning when you're having one of those strangely profound conversations that come from nowhere but change your life irrevocably for the better.

Sobriquet Grade: 95 (A).

The Clash: London Calling

Although I had been looking forward to starting this record review column for quite some time, I struggled to find a logical starting point. I'd thought about beginning with albums released by bands whose names start with "A," but decided against the alphabetical approach largely because I'd have to wait too long before I'd have the chance to talk about Screeching Weasel, the Ramones, or Stiff Little Fingers. This morning, flipping through the newspaper, I saw that Henry Rollins celebrates his 47th birthday today and, for a moment, I thought about discussing an S. O. A. or Black Flag album, figuring that would be as reasonable an impetus as any for the selection of a record to review.

Ultimately, given the rating system I came up with yesterday, I thought it might be wise to think of the sort of record that would earn each grade so that I could more effectively establish the levels of quality I will henceforth associate with a given level. This way, I reasoned, I would associate the abstract criteria I devised with concrete examples. Thinking that the best place to begin would be at either the absolute top or bottom of my scale, I quickly decided that it would be more enjoyable to start with the A+ level. Immediately a few records came to mind: any of the Ramones' first four albums, for instance or possibly Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. In the end, however, I chose to start with the album I consider the best record ever produced in the history of rock and roll: the Clash's brilliant London Calling.

Before you crack your knuckles and prepare to type up a comment in which you disagree with me, let me just say you will not change my mind. If I happened to be stranded on the deserted island of hackneyed theoretical discussion and was given the choice between taking any one record released by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, U2, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, or Radiohead and London Calling, I would not hesitate for a second to choose the Clash's epic double album. And, really, I'm not alone. After all, Rolling Stone ranked London Calling the eighth greatest album in rock and roll history and famously proclaimed the 1979 record to be the greatest album of the 1980s (though, to give the rag some credit, London Calling was released stateside in January of 1980). Though I'm not suggesting that Rolling Stone carries much weight in a discussion of punk rock records, the so-called experts do seem to suggest my punk rock bias hasn't clouded my judgment any: everyone loves London Calling.

Although the band had always shown signs of greatness (both their self-titled debut and their sophomore effort, Give 'Em Enough Rope, measure up to most anyone's standards of a great rock record), by 1979 the Clash had essentially become the greatest band on earth. Billing themselves as "the only band that matters" and famously singing that there's "no Elvis, Beatles, or Rolling Stones" in their world, the Clash had the swagger (notice the album cover's homage to/replacement of Elvis Presley's debut album) only greatness can provide and they backed it up with London Calling, an album as musically varied as any produced before or since, and as consistently great as, well, nothing else.

Combining elements of punk, sixties' pop, rockabilly, rhythm & blues, ska, reggae, and just about every other style of popular music imaginable, London Calling testifies to the band's uncanny ability to choose any genre, pick up their instruments, and immediately establish themselves as its masters. James Joyce once boasted that his fiction captured Dublin so perfectly that, if the city were to be destroyed by a catastrophe, it could be rebuilt from his descriptions. Well, London Calling is so good that if all pop music created prior to its release was destroyed, we could recreate the entirety of rock and roll by drawing upon the Clash's album. And it would be better than it was before.

Oh, and the album is as political a record as any anarcho-punk disk.

But, for me, what makes London Calling so exceptional is how good it sounds nearly three decades after its release. I can recall, actually, not liking the record the first few times I heard it. Of course, at seventeen, I was in my "major label bands suck (except for the Ramones, they're exempt) and it's gotta be fast and loud and barely produced if it's really good" phase, so my initially lukewarm response to the album probably stemmed from the weirdly elitist MRR attitude I attempted to cultivate at that point in my life. At any rate, it took a few play-throughs before I enjoyed anything other than the opening track. Ten years later, though, every song on the record sounds as if it could be a charting single and if that's not a measure of timelessness, I don't know what is. As an added bonus, having grown fond of the album while living in rural Norway, London Calling never fails to evoke images of fjord hamlets and glaciers and, as is the case with so much music, always delivers a nostalgia-tinged flood of cherished memories. But, before I succumb to the sweet temptation of self-indulgent reverie, let me mention a few high points on the album. . .


Track 1. "London Calling." The title track sets the tone for the entire album. At turns apocalyptic ("the ice age is coming/The sun's zooming in/Engines stop running/The wheat is growing thin") and cocky ("phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust"), "London Calling" embodies the desperate, frantic energy of a late-Cold War Great Britain unable to contain the class conflicts rippling throughout the isles. And you'll sing along to every damn word in the song.

Track 4. "Hateful." Possibly the most melodic song about drug addiction ever released.

Track 5. "Rudie Can't Fail." Even if you hate ska, you'll love this.

Track 6. "Spanish Bombs." Seriously, how many pop songs memorialize republicans and anarchists during the Spanish Civil War? Now, of those, how may do you want to sing over and over?

Track 8. "Lost in the Supermarket." Punk rock anti-consumerism, suburban isolation, and the depersonalization of modern living delivered in the guise of a poppy a love song.

Track 10. "Guns of Brixton." Paul Simonon's lone songwriting credit on London Calling is the apocalyptic reggae counterpart to the apocalyptic rock 'n' roll opening track: where global starvation and nuclear war threatens humanity in "London Calling," the police threaten the sovereignty of the petty criminal culture of Simonon's hometown in "Guns of Brixton."

Track 12. "Death or Glory." I'm not surprised Social Distortion covered this song. Lyrically, it sounds like Mike Ness wrote it.

Track 14. "The Card Cheat." Possibly the least punk song on the entire album, but oh-so-catchy.

Track 19. "Train in Vain." Save for perhaps "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" and "Rock the Casbah," this is the Clash song you're most likely to hear on the radio. Imagine a train pulling out of a Western railroad station in some oater of an American movie, parting two lovers. . .and make it sound happy.

Sobriquet Grade: 100 (A+).


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